Why Osborne's new lending scheme won't work

If consumers are determined to hoard cash, who will borrow?

The likelihood is that George Osborne's new bank lending scheme, announced last night in his Mansion House speech, will neither revive the economy nor the Tories' moribund poll ratings (they currently trail Labour by 12 points).

Osborne has always said that he and David Cameron are "fiscal conservatives but monetary activists" and more monetary activism is what we're getting. Under a new "funding for lending" scheme, worth up to £80bn, the Bank of England will provide cheap loans to banks for several years, at below market rates, in exchange for them lending the money to households and small and medium-sized businesses. In addition, the snappily-titled Extended Collateral Term Repo Facility will lend banks a minimum of £5bn a month in the form of six month loans to them. The aim of both schemes is to stimulate the economy by increasing loans to credit-starved businesses and households. But will they work? Almost certainly not.

There is increasing evidence that the UK is caught in a liquidity trap, a situation in which confidence is so low that looser monetary policy (e.g. increasing the money supply or lowering interest rates) has no positive effect on the economy. If consumers and businesses are determined to hoard cash (as is common in a recession), then the new loans will not be taken up. As for those willing to borrow, many are so indebted that the banks won't lend to them anyway. Put simply, the creditworthy won't take loans and the uncreditworthy won't get them.

It is in such circumstances that the government must act as a spender of last resort and engage in fiscal stimulus (higher spending and lower taxes), as Ed Balls has repeatedly argued. Since Osborne is so fond of boasting of the UK's historically low bond yields (although they owe more to the Bank of England's quantitative easing programme than to his deficit reduction programme), the least he could do is take advantage of them. He should increase borrowing to fund higher infrastructure spending (the most effective stimulus, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility) and tax cuts.

As for the politics, they're not great for Osborne either. As Tory MP Douglas Carswell, an increasingly vociferous critic of the Chancellor, noted on Twitter: "Print-money-and-give-to-banks (govt) V Print-money-and-give-ppl (Balls). Guess which will play better in studio debates?"

In a recent essay in the New York Review of Books, Paul Krugman sagely observed that "the economic strategy that works best politically isn’t the strategy that finds approval with focus groups, let alone with the editorial page of The Washington Post; it’s the strategy that actually delivers results." If Osborne wants to restore his political reputation (he is both Chancellor and the Tories' chief election strategist) and give the Tories a faint hope of forming another government, he should adopt a plan that works. But first he must learn the lesson of the 1930s - you can't cut your way out of a recession, but you can spend your way out of one. And in these depressed times, only big government has the firepower to do so. 

Chancellor George Osborne delivered his annual Mansion House address last night. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.